Improvisation gives musicians a chance to really explore the art side of music. When you are improvising, you are playing music that has not been written/composed by anyone – not even you. It’s more like both composition and performance are happening at the same time. That has got to take some skills, wouldn’t you agree? Indeed, it does take skills. But you need not panic, you will learn the necessary skills. This article will get you started with some tips and techniques. That alone won’t suffice, you will need to practice and explore more. So let’s get started!
Improvisation 1: Imaj7
How do you improvise on Cmaj7?
Well, there’s the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B). But most musicians find it very limited when it comes to improvisation. Another choice is the modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian). In C major, we have
Ionian — Imaj7 — c, d, e, f, g, a, b = Cmaj7
Dorian — IIm7 — d, e, f, g, a, b, c = Dm7
Phrygian — IIm7 — e, f, g, a, b, c, d = Em7
Lydian — IVmaj7 — f, g, a, b, c, d, e = Fmaj7
Mixolydian — V7 — g, a, b, c, d, e, f = G7
Aeolian — VIm7 — a, b, c, d, e, f, g = Am7
Locrian — VIIm7b5 — b, c, d, e, f, g, a = Bm7b5
When using the modes, one needs to pay attention to certain notes on each mode. One can play plenty of notes and explore without limits. But certain notes are more sensitive than others when it comes to ending a musical phrase. For example, you need to pay attention to the notes F and B – which shouldn’t end a musical phrase in the scale of C. If you try ending a musical phrase on those notes, it will give a “suspense” feeling. That is, something else must come after those notes.
A very interesting case is when we have a chord progression that we are trying to resolve into Imaj7. Suppose we have
Dm7 — | G7 — | Cmaj7 — |
This progression suggests that we have three choices: the dorian mode (Dm7) followed by the mixolydian mode (G7) and the ionian mode (Cmaj7). That’s just one possibility. There is more. We can compact the whole thing in just Imaj7. This will hold whether we are in Dm7 (2nd degree, dorian) or in G7 (5th degree, mixolydian). The three chords are in the same scale, and we can use just one: the scale of the ionian mode (see above). That will give us a great sound.
Another possibility is to use the mixolydian mode on the whole progression – while paying attention to the sensitive notes mentioned above. In other words, we will see the scale as going on the G7 (in our mind) although we are playing on a Cmaj7. The same thing can apply to the dorian mode.
In conclusion, it makes a huge difference where you play a certain note when improvising. Some notes require special attention. In the next article, we will look at improvisation techniques 2 and 3 – which deal with G7 versus Db7 and the substitution of G7 (Db7 preceeded with its IIm7).
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